Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Women and Engineering: The Great Debate (Part 2)

Following up on Women and Engineering: The Great Debate (Part 1), I recently had the pleasure of corresponding with a female engineer (several years older than I) who had this to share:

" ... I had a good experience in engineering. [My boss] was a big part of that, and very supportive of me and my work. I was lucky. Without such a supportive manager, my experience could have been very different.

I probably experienced more discrimination than I realized. Definitely there were a few instances I can recall, but in general, but I was always reticent to blame anything on my gender. If there was a problem, I tried to figure a way around it, regardless of the cause ...

My first day of work at one job, my boss sat down with me. The first words out of his mouth were he couldn't understand why a woman would want to work. He shook his head back and forth as he spoke. He wasn't being mean. He just couldn't understand it. I later discovered I was paid significantly less than my male counterpart, so I found a new job … and left. I told my boss and the department manager about it. I later heard the department manager cited my leaving as an example of why not to hire a woman, because they won't stay in a job for very long. He neglected to mention the pay inequity issue.

Even then, going back to my point about not blaming my gender, my take on the situation is this: Was I paid less because I was female, or was it because I could have done a better job of negotiating my salary? It was probably both, but I focused on the latter, because I could learn from it and do better next time, which I did ..."

Two things struck me as I read her words. First, I was impressed with her attitude toward work in the face of gender discrimination. She simply believed in herself, pressed forward, and moved on past a bad situation. I hope, in a similar situation, that I would do the same. Second, I marveled at the inappropriateness of a boss making comments like that.

But have things really changed in the intervening years? How are female engineers treated today?

In Stopping the Exodus of Women in Science, an article in the June 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Carolyn Buck Luce, and Lisa J. Servon summarize the findings of their recent study of women in the technology sector:

" ...Our research findings show that on the lower rungs of corporate career ladders, fully 41% of highly qualified scientists, engineers, and technologists are women. But the dropout rates are huge: Over time 52% of these talented women quit their jobs ... So why do women leave science, engineering, and technology careers? ... First and foremost, the hostility of the workplace culture drives them out. If machismo is on the run in most U.S. corporate settings, then this is its Alamo ..." (emphasis mine)

Kathleen Melymuka, of Computerworld, interviewed Hewlett in her June 16, 2008 post entitled Why women quit technology careers. Hewlett flatly denies that the primary reason women leave the workforce is to start families. Although work-life balance is a factor, Hewlett found that it is low on the list of reasons women are leaving the technology sector. Melymuka quotes Hewlett as follows:

"We found that 63% of women in science, engineering and technology have experienced sexual harassment ... demeaning and condescending attitudes … off-color jokes, sexual innuendo ... colleagues, particularly in the tech culture, who genuinely think women don't have what it takes -- who see them as genetically inferior. It's hard to take as a steady stream ..."

Well, at least the women who stick it out are paid well, right? Wrong. In 2006, the American Association of University Professors examined the salaries of women professors as compared to men. Looking at colleges and universities across the board, women are only making 80.7% of the salary of their male counterparts in similar jobs.

Unfair? Definitely. But are women also limiting their options and perpetuating these stereotypes without realizing it? Could you be an engineer and not know it? Gena Haskett notes some common misperceptions about female engineers -- including this gem -- in her blog post entitled Are You An Engineer?:

" ...Now you might not think that you have engineering tendencies but if you have every applied clear nail polish to a run in pantyhose, if you have stapled a hem or have 10 alternative uses for duct tape you might be a latent engineer or inventor ..."

And keep in mind the findings of a new study, conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that looked at differences in math performance based upon gender. After studying data from 7 million U.S. students, the scientists came to this conclusion: There were no gender differences in math performance.

Let’s all take a step forward from these stereotypes and let our present and future engineers – of both genders – work in peace.

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